Obviously, the most relevant top-level obstacles to achieving low-carbon transition are related to the political system itself: The in-built prioritisation of short-term gains over long-term sustainability that characterises Western democracies; the general resistance to change from the existing to the unknown, particularly among the comfortable and influential elites; and a prevailing liberal ideology that moves against the notion of an agenda-setting state and long planning cycles. At the same time, there are three generic issues that no longer explain inaction: favourable public opinion, our current technological advancement and the availability of sensible policy, would all suggest that we are ready to go ahead.
With both perspectives in mind, what then remains a big and concrete obstacle that government can actually do something about? To offer a possible answer it is helpful to rephrase the above question by replacing ‘low-carbon transition’ with some more tangible policy directions for which cross-party agreement already exists. It would then read ‘What is the biggest obstacle to overcome in implementing an effective green building programme / in radically increasing fuel economy of cars / in moving away from airport expansions / in applying the compact city model / in decentralising energy production etc.? What immediately comes to mind here are the reactionary forces that have interests – both perverse and reasonable – in maintaining a status quo under which they have so far been successful. By definition, a green revolution is not a win-win for everyone and everything, something which the following example illustrates all too well: Even if the automotive sector is re-infused with its lost innovative capacity and re-emerges as a green mobility provider, this is unlikely to happen with the same personnel that drove the fetishisation of the combustion engine and its two-tonne carrier.
Too often, it seems, potential loss ends up outweighing potential gains regardless of whether the overall sum is positive. And any policy maker would have to agree that the ‘lobbying for the status-quo’ is currently not balanced by any kind of powerful, yet to be defined ‘advocacy of future interests’. But can we change it? Can government be instrumental in overcoming this imbalance? Possibly more than one would think: Where is the International Environment Agency at the Level of World Bank and the IMF? Where is the Chamber of Green Industries? A UN sponsored International Rail Organisation? The Council for Future Jobs and Prosperity? etc. Together with new partnerships of already existing green interest groups, new green statutory bodies can be granted status and influence for policy making well before a new green industry sector is able to employ a full-blown lobby capable of challenging today’s carbon industry. Would we then have been able to see more money of the stimulus packages going green? I believe so.
Philipp Rode, Head of the Urban Age programme at the LSE